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Since 2000, Maranatha Christian Academy Principal Tim Ford, foreground, has guided middle- and high school students on twice-a-year treks into the woods.

Rob Andres,

Maranatha students test faith and strength in trek

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA
  • Star Tribune
  • April 24, 2012 - 11:50 AM

One bitter night last fall, high school senior Andrew Tschumper huddled in a tent, massaging his freezing fingers and toes. It was a low point of his five-day trek on the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, he said, but through it all, he knew the morning would bring relief.

Another day on the trail, 10th-grader Ellie Andres' energy flagged as she struggled up yet another hill. She kept going by repeating the words of the prophet Habakkuk: "The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights."

Since 2000, Maranatha Christian Academy Principal Tim Ford has guided middle- and high school students on twice-a-year treks into the woods. This week, a select number of students at the Brooklyn Park school are flouting the dress code and breaking in their hiking boots to prepare for another intense application of their lessons about resilience, patience, gratitude and faith.

Over seven or eight trips, students can finish the entire 235-mile course, an accomplishment that brings honor and a commemorative plaque. Only about half a dozen have done so thus far, including Ellie's older sister, Megan, in 2011. During a trip that starts Friday, Ellie also will walk the trail's final steps.

"It's rigorous," Ford said. The students are "uncomfortable, they face weather challenges, they work harder than many of them have ever worked. ... If your faith isn't there for you in times of adversity, then it's not worth much. It needs to be tested, and this is a great testing ground for faith."

The trip is open to students in grades 7 to 12. The $125 they pay covers bus, food and some rental gear. For the first couple of years, students carry light packs and are bused from the trail to a home base campsite.

As they grow in strength and confidence, they graduate to a backpack. On the rough trails, up and down hills and gullies, they carry tents, sleeping bags, gear and food in packs that can weigh as much as 50 pounds. They suffer through blisters, twisted ankles and tears.

But the students come back. This year, 37 students and eight adults will walk the trail.

Lauren Mongeon, another sophomore, also will complete the trail this spring. She recalled times when the weather hasn't cooperated. "Those have been the extremely trying trips," she said. "That's when everything is wet. You wake up, and your tent is wet, and everything is heavier, and you're walking and sliding up mud, and it's slippery. That's when you get the impulse to complain, but then you realize you're not going to complain, you're going to stay strong for the group. Those are trying, but you learn to rise above it."

The students told of the beauty of the trail, an uninterrupted gallery of nature. They spoke with gratitude of the deeper connection with their classmates, connections made between grades, abundant thanks for the luxury of rest and a hot meal.

At first, Ford said, he and his students relied on freeze-dried food. Add water, eat it. It was fine, he said, but it didn't create community. A few years ago, he and base camp leader Jodi Thill, a physical education teacher, took a course in back country pantry-style cooking. Now students in groups of four plan their meals and pack whole ingredients. They sit around the camp stoves and create the meals together. Groups do taste-tests and "marvel at each other's creations," he said. "That has been the number one improvement in my trips. It's dramatically changed the trips."

For the challenges of the trail, Ford created a card with verses meant to give hikers strength and hope. He has a special therapy for kids who can't keep up: Put them at the front of the group.

Ellie's dad, Rob Andres, has participated as a chaperone; he said he's seen that unexpected shift transform a lagger into a leader.

"There's something about being in front that really boosts them," he said. "I've seen so many kids turn around their attitude, and their sense of accomplishment goes through the roof."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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